Maria Tallchief was America’s first prima ballerina and is honored as the November 14 Google Doodle. Tallchief died in 2013 due to complications after breaking her hip in 2012. Following her passing, The New York Times referred to her as “one of the most brilliant American ballerina of the 20th century.”
According to Google’s blog on Tallchief’s doodle, she was born in Fairfax in northern Oklahoma on the Osage Indian Reservation. Her father, Alexander Tall Chief, was a member of the Osage Nation while her mother, Ruth Porter, was of Scottish-Irish descent.
By age 3, Tallchief began dancing and continued throughout her family’s move to California in 1933. After high school, Tallchief moved to New York City where she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dance troupe. Tallchief began working with choreographer George Balanchine in 1944. The two would later marry in 1946. Balanchine would go on to found the New York City Ballet. Tallchief was the company’s first prima ballerina. During her 18 years with the New York company, Tallchief danced in The Firebird, Swanlake and The Nutcracker.
Tallchief retired in 1965 and became the artistic director of the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet and the founder of the Chicago City Ballet. In 1996, Tallchief was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and received the National Medal for the Arts in 1999. In 2018, five years after her death, Tallchief was named in the Native American Hall of Fame.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Tallchief Was the First American to Perform at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet
According to Tallchief’s obituary in The Washington Post, she was the first American to perform at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet. Tallchief danced with Danish dancer Erik Bruhn in her performance.
The New York Times noted in their 2013 obituary that many of Tallchief’s contemporaries adopted Russian stage names but that she refused to do so due to her pride in being Native American. That’s despite friends telling her “that it would be easy to transform Tallchief into Tallchieva.”
While the Time Magazine obituary mentioned that one of Tallchief’s dance teachers in her youth was Russian dancer Bronislava Nijinkska, the sister of Vaslav Nijinsky. Vaslav Nijinsky was a graduate of the grand ballet academies of the Tsars in Russia.
2. Tallchief Was Married 3 Times During Her Life
Tallchief was married three times during her life, first to George Balanchine in a marriage that lasted from 1946 until 1951. Her second marriage was to Elmourza Natirboff which lasted from 1952 until 1954. Tallchief’s final marriage was to a Chicago businessman named Henry Paschen which lasted from 1956 until his death in 2004. This marriage produced Tallchief’s only child, Elise Paschen, who was born in 1959.
At the time of her marriage to Balanchine, Tallchief was 21 while he was 42 and had children from a previous marriage. Her parents objected to the union and did not attend the ceremony. The marriage annulled in 1952, the same year Tallchief married Elmourza Natirboff. Natirboff was a pilot for a private airline company. Tallchief’s met her third husband Henry Paschen in 1955. During their marriage, Paschen was imprisoned due to tax evasion.
3. Tallchief’s Parents Moved the Family From Oklahoma to Beverly Hills With the Intent of Getting Their Children Into Movies
In her book, Maria Tallchief: America’s First Prima Ballerina, Tallchief wrote about her parents moving the family from Oklahoma to Beverly Hills in 1933. According to an excerpt that was published on the New York Times website, the family moved as her mother “could wait no longer.” Tallchief said that her father supported the move as due to the climate, he could play golf all year round.
The family settled to live in Beverly Hills after stopping for gas in the area. An employee of the station told Tallchief’s mother that there was a good dance school in the area, which made up her mind. Tallchief wrote in the book that she experience racist bullying in the Beverly Hills school system.
4. Tallchief’s Daughter Elise Paschen Said in 2006: ‘My Mother Devoted Herself to Her Craft & Did Not Allow Anything to Get in Her Way’
Tallchief’s daughter is celebrated poet Elise Paschen. According to a 2011 Harvard Magazine, Paschen’s poetry evokes “poignant moments, feelings, and ideas in lines crafted with lapidary care, working in traditional meters and forms and often using rhyme.” Paschen is a 2011 graduate of the school.
In a November 2006 interview at the Michigan City Public Library that was published on Valparaiso University’s website, Tallchief’s daughter spoke about the influence her mother had on her career. Elise Paschen, a renowned poet, said that her mother inspired her because she “devoted herself to her craft and did not allow anything to get in her way.”
Paschen said that her mother wanted her daughter to become a lawyer, an idea that Paschen said that she never entertained. Paschen said it was her father, Henry Paschen, who supported her desire to become a writer. Paschen added, “I grew up knowing that a woman should have a career, and, fortunately, I realized my own calling at a young age.”
Paschen told Harvard Magazine that she tried ballet at a young age but it didn’t stick saying, “I lived my imagination and loved writing poems, short stories, plays.”
5. Tallchief’s Sister Marjorie Was a Celebrated Ballerina in Her Own Right
Tallchief’s sister, Marjorie, was a celebrated ballet dancer in her own right, also dancing with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, having made her debut in Montreal in September 1944, according to an online profile. Marjorie Tallchief sister became best known for her time with the Paris Opera Ballet, where she performed from 1956 until 1962. After spending time dancing in Chicago with her sister, Marjorie Tallchief retired in 1966. At the time of writing, Marjorie Tallchief is still alive. Both Maria and Marjorie Tallchief have scholarships named in their honor at the University of Oklahoma School of Dance.
Elise Paschen said in her 2006 Valparaiso interview that after her mother called Paschen’s grandmother to say she just met President Dwight Eisenhower, Paschen’s grandmother replied by saying, “Well, your sister, Marjorie, just had dinner with the Aga Khan.” Paschen added, “Both my mother and my mother’s mother were exacting parents, demanding excellence from their offspring.”